Hip-hop Gives Peace a Chance
During its years-long hold on the charts, moralists have criticized gangsta rap for promoting violence, but artistically speaking it has a bigger problem: The gangstas are wallowing in a creative tar pit, a profusion of sound-alike one-hit wonders (stars like Tupac Shakur and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony excepted) who are still treading territory Dr. Dre covered three years ago. This sorry condition has been boldly underscored in recent months by what's starting to look like the second coming of positive hip-hop: The second Fugees album, The Score, has sold more than four million copies since its release early in the year. Busta Rhymes has a gold record thanks largely to the off-kilter hit "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check," a flashback to amiable old-school braggadocio. And on Nas's second album, It Is Written, he pays lip service to casual violence but struggles against getting sucked into it. It Is Written held the number-one spot on Billboard's album chart for a month, until it was knocked down last week by Beats, Rhymes, and Life, the new album from A Tribe Called Quest.
In the late 80s and early 90s, A Tribe Called Quest was tightly aligned with De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, and the Jungle Brothers as the influential, forward-looking collective Native Tongues. But the collective dissipated as its members achieved individual success. Around the same time, the idea of a unified hip-hop front gave way to the present reality of warring factions. Gangsta rap became the dominant mode, even as critics hailed "alternative rap" acts like Arrested Development, Digable Planets, and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy--who became popular with hip-hop's new fans but bypassed the core audience--as the future of hip-hop. Those groups' efforts to transcend the specific experience of urban blacks and to expand hip-hop's musical method beyond beat-and-sample basics alienated the fundamental black audience. When the music lost its urban sexiness, it lost its white audience too.
On Beats, Rhymes, and Life (Jive), A Tribe Called Quest's fourth album, the group homes in on the state of hip-hop, to the exclusion of past topics that ranged from Skypagers to music industry "snakes." In the process of making the record, Tribe got together with De La Soul, whose new record is also its best in years, to revive Native Tongues. "There was a need to bring it back," says Tribe rapper Phife. "Not only for the money--that's the easy part. We wanted people to know that we're all family."
Positivity has reclaimed the charts, but this time around it's tempered by the harsh realities of urban life. It's a positivity that doesn't ignore hip-hop's core audience. Tribe's "Keep It Moving" applies a balm to the tense east-versus-west rivalry. "Jam" and "Crew" sketch unsentimental slices of ghetto life. "Phony Rappers" disses MCs with nothing to say, and "Get a Hold" recommends a life plan: "The brother well-prepared is the brother who will start." But it's as much the grooves--lean and mean, particularly compared to Tribe's stab at sonic expansion on 1993's Midnight Marauders--that helps the group maintain its street cred.
None of this is to say that Tribe intends to abandon its greater metropolitan audience. As Phife puts it, "We're not going to break our necks to go a whole new route and leave what we have behind us." The almost musical verbal interactions of Phife and fellow rapper Q-Tip easily compensate for the lack of instrumental extravagance. And the group's participation in Smokin' Grooves--the high-profile, hip-hop-heavy package tour that pulls into the New World Music Theatre on Friday--is primarily a nod to a more mainstream audience. For its core audience, live performances aren't really an integral part of hip-hop. The $27 ticket price and the World's Tinley Park location make attendance even less feasible for many of those fans. Kate Darling, a spokesperson for the venue, confirms that Smokin' Grooves has beendrawing crowds that are roughly 80 percent white.
Musically, Smokin' Grooves isn't flawless either. The lineup includes Cypress Hill, who have reduced themselves to blunt-puffing cartoon characters, and Disposable Heroes detritus Spearhead. Audiences in other cities have been leaving during headliner Ziggy Marley's wan reggae set. But anchored by Busta Rhymes, Tribe, and the Fugees, the 34-city amphitheater tour is far and away the largest and most ambitious hip-hop showcase ever conceived--and it's been a long time coming.
Phife asserts that fear has prevented it from happening before. "The violence level of past hip-hop shows has made promoters nervous and made the venue owners nervous," he says. "But the promoters of this tour are working it smooth and nothing bad's happening."
"We didn't skimp on production or security," explains Kevin Morrow, vice president of tours and talent for House of Blues, who helped program the event. "A lot of past violence has been spurred by the huge entourages the groups usually travel with. We laid out strict ground rules to prevent that from happening." In addition the tight schedules and organization of the Smokin' Grooves tour has prevented long set changes, which make people restless.
"As long as it stays like this," says Phife, "I think it can keep going for years."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of A Tribe Called Quest, by Christian Lantry.